When does belief become knowledge?

The art of knowing is above all an art of ignorance, and only knowledge can really make us free

Since man emancipated himself from faith, religion and science have not been in a good relationship. A holiday for science would help.

It is strange that the famous three offenses of modern man are continually being added to. After Copernicus had moved the earth out of the middle of the world, Darwin had described man as a better ape and Freud saw him as the apparatus of his instincts, sociology degraded him to part of a network, and neuropsychologists denied him free will because he only had one machine connected to a preprogrammed brain. Evolutionary-oriented biologists considered it to be the disposable packaging of egotistical genes that very well have a will, namely that of copying themselves. Viruses have the best economy. The playwright Heiner Müller called the human organism a virus bar.

This fashion is strange because knowledge is not a setback, but a natural process of growth. Knowledge is the motive of growing up, in the course of which man becomes a more intimate part of the world. He first grew crops and now programs viruses to destroy tumor cells. Even at the beginning of modernity, there was no setback, but a really big arrival: the beauty of the heliocentric worldview lay in the suddenly plausible planetary orbits.

It was then Johannes Kepler who related the orbits to revolutions around symmetrical polygons, the Platonic solids. The discovery was proof of the possibilities of explaining heaven better to oneself, at least the place that stood for both the greatest longing and the worst fears and had made fear a virtue.

The depth of the starry sky

Today people smile at the time when the fear of a comet was the most important topic, like in November 1618, when a tailing star was observed throughout the Holy Roman Empire and read as the announcement of war. The phenomena were still seen as objective, not as abstract characters, behind which the actual meaning would have to be deciphered: What could the raging body with its tail be but an attack? The comet also pierced the crystal shells that held the planets. World order gone: save yourself who can! The war came and lasted thirty years.

The breadth and depth of the starry sky can hardly be seen now, but once you are lucky you will understand the former belief that the sky is the world and that everything in it has meaning. To think that the whole spectacle was random and that nothing about it could be understood would have been unproductive. The egocentric assertion that all this was created only for humans anyway can be excused with a wink as a psychological trick against the nothingness under this sky.

In any case, one does not have to share the view that the delegation of responsibility to heavenly forces is resignation. One was tempted to make God friendly. Goethe formulated this in the theory of colors when he argued about Luther: his writings contained far more superstitions than those of Francis Bacon, the pioneer of empiricism. Luther made it easy for himself through his devil, with whom he explained human nature. And yet he was extraordinary, because while he thought what he was reluctant to do as ugly, with horns, tail and claws, his heroic disposition was only all the more excited to meet the hostile.

Damn it by your own fault

In fact, in Luther's day, man was exposed to a threefold offense. The original offense was not knowing anything about heaven. Not even what recurs and remains about him was known. Second, the offense was that there were hardly any tools with which to learn anything. You couldn't go any closer to see whether instead of the luminous celestial bodies there weren't perhaps holes in the tent through which an endless brightness penetrated.

This refusal was existential in the face of storms, droughts and floods that caused crop failures, disease and chaos. The third, and largest, of all setbacks for the individual is the passage of time with a limited stay. So man accepts this threefold humiliation: he knows nothing, has no instruments to change that, and on top of that no time to build any. To be ignorant means not to be in the world. Modern man has achieved nothing less than breaking this vicious circle.

The then still unrecognized beginning of the modern world was founded by the English theologian and philosopher John Wyclif, according to the historian Barbara Tuchman. He translated the Bible and finally transferred the redeeming power entirely to the individual. "For every person," said Wyclif, "who is supposed to be damned should be damned through his own fault, and every person who is supposed to be saved should be saved by his own merit."

A probe on Mars

Maybe that's an overreaction, certainly it's a huge burden. It is remarkable that Wyclif already denied that the sacraments, especially the Lord's Supper, had a healing effect. But it should cause a lot of trouble. In the inquisitorial denunciation of the Copernican Giordano Bruno in 1592, it was said that the monk had said on various occasions that it was great nonsense on the part of the Catholics to claim that bread turns into meat.

Kepler also rejected the ubiquity, the actual presence of the body of Christ in the Lord's Supper, at a very high price: He was not only excluded from an appointment to the local University of Tübingen, but also from taking part in the Lord's Supper. Quite apart from the refuge that Kepler therefore had to take with the elected Catholic and warlord Wallenstein, this process has extreme consequences. In its meaning it is certainly not inferior to the theses of Luther or the imperative of Kant.

Now the churches are emptying at a breathtaking pace. Our time, it is said, is marked by the final extinction of religion. It is not a good thing that hardly anyone knows what the holidays mean: Ascension, for example. But don't humans have one probe on Mars while another leaves their solar system after a journey of four decades and two dozen billion kilometers?

Humanity as a substitute for God

In this simultaneity there is a loss of the present. It appears to be a buried tunnel, over which past and future have been pushed into one another and wedged: Giordano Bruno found the doctrine of the innate Son of God provincial and absurd, we are now experiencing the end of a turning point that began in Germany with Kepler's resistance at the latest. This turnaround must be an emancipation when life expectancy has already tripled.

But you can't count that cold. Anyone who warns against genetic engineering can argue that the theory of evolution was turned into a deadly race theory and that atomic physics was first made into a weapon. Compared to a time when a declaration of war was recognized in a comet, this is not progress, but the opposite. It confirms the skeptic's fear that one is fighting for more power in order to abuse it against the world or against people. In the “Book of Unrest” Fernando Pessoa writes that most young people have chosen humanity as a substitute for God. That is also the central reproach to modernity, which is presumptuous and leads to ruin.

But why should man want to do that? And what should be modern about it? Whoever puts man in God's place does nothing new, but exactly what the church has always done: see the Son of God on earth. Ludwig Feuerbach therefore spoke of the fact that man created God in his own image. The really modern man, however, does the opposite: he replaces divine arbitrariness and ignorance with knowledge of the natural law and its area of ​​application.

To the next question

This is the reason why Albert Einstein writes about his worldview: "It was not without good reason that someone once said that serious researchers in our generally materialistic world are the only deeply religious people." The acceptance of the natural law is a higher form of the former godliness, but the paradigm shift from arbitrariness to mandatory law has not been internalized. Allegedly omniscient representatives of alleged laws have been allowed to practice arbitrariness without monitoring them. Her devotees did not take for themselves the responsibility that Wycliffe had spoken of.

If, on the other hand, one recognizes the paradigm shift, then not only does efficiency move into human endeavors, religion also receives a task that is more feasible. As in painting, the change takes place after the invention of photography. Religion is released from day-to-day business. It continues to ask the last questions, which is why it cannot go out. Science, on the other hand, always asks the next question. Your answers are preliminary and concrete, and where none are available art and religion begin. This limit is constantly being renegotiated, it is being shifted. It cannot be resolved.

This is why the scorn that scientists often have for the rituals of the Church and for their own ancestors of astrology is unpleasant. Einstein, for example, wrote to the art historian Aby Warburg that Kepler “would have been ashamed to earn his food by such a clumsy game”. This angered the art historian, because for him Kepler was the figure of the bipolarity of astrology and astronomy, the overcoming of which made him "a torch of enlightenment blazing far and wide": without a star interpretation, there was no gravitation.

The end of centrality

Conversely, the pastor's jealousy of the doctor and the astronaut is superfluous. It would be much better if clergy and artists on the one hand, and scientists and technicians on the other, recognized their common conviction: that there is an organizing body in the world with which to communicate. The Germanist Manfred Schneider noted on the occasion of the pandemic that, according to Psalm 53, someone is a fool who denies God, which in post-biblical language means: "I only believe what I see." Conversely, those who consciously drive on sight know that they cannot found a thousand-year empire.

The fact that no fruitful coexistence of knowledge and belief, of practical progress and respectable handling of human drama has established itself can be seen from the lack of awareness of the achievements of modernity. Not only for Aby Warburg, the discovery of the elliptical shape of the planetary orbits by Kepler is a step into the new era. He gave up the compelling idea of ​​centrality, because instead of a center the ellipse has two focal points.

Kepler struggled to accept this. Finally he spoke of the stamp mill of the orbit circles to which he had incorrectly connected the planets. One could expect all the more that the ellipse will play a role in the cultural memory of Germans today. But that is not the case, although the Federal President's Office in Bellevue Palace Park is a large elliptical building. A reference to Kepler is missing. Germany, perhaps the most modern of all countries: an unconscious nation.

God is no longer moody

Because he dismisses his achievements as mere technicalities, modern man is shaky on his concept of freedom, which is committed to the truth. That he has five fingers on his hand and the top can describe a hypotrochoid may still be God's will, but God is no longer moody. Even in social conflicts or an epidemic, there are laws that can be better recognized and used.

It goes without saying that one should not confuse the existence of regularities with that of conflicts of interest, the solution of which is a political task. The fact that everyone has their own truth is a strikingly often extreme position. She is wrong. A holiday for science would make it clear that the truth is not known as a matter of course, but is laboriously achieved, that the necessary art of knowing is above all an art of ignorance and that only knowledge really makes people free.

The writer Ralf Bönt lives in Berlin. In 2012, «The Dishonored Sex. A necessary manifesto for the man ».